Colombia surprises by announcing design of an e-voting pilot

In recent years, Colombia has been full of surprises when it comes to electoral matters, but these have not always of the good kind.  Delayed results, accusations of irregularities, and setbacks in the modernization of the voting system have tarnished several events and, although the authorities have started many projects to solve these issues, none has come to fruition yet.

For instance, the creation in 2013 of the Associate Commission for the Implementation of Electoral Technology.  After scandalous regional elections, where the system was flooded by dozens of accusations of fraud and voting vices, the National Civil Registry Office began a process of consultation and analysis to modernize the voting mechanisms. This even included an international bidding process with the participation of 16 companies, with the hopes of designing the pilot test of an automated voting model.

Despite these advances, the Commission did not implement any actions, so the Colombian government chose to install in 2017 an Special Electoral Mission, conceived to provide council and turn the ship around, by revisiting the nation’s old and questioned voting model.

Then, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos formalized the start of operations for this Mission as part of fulfilling point number two of the peace agreement signed last November between the government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). This agreement contemplates the “expansion” of democracy through “greater transparency in the voting process”.

Until then, the steps taken by Colombia to transform its voting system had been duly informed to the public, meeting the standard required whenever changes in human right matters are made -political participation in this case.

However, National Civil Registrer Juan Carlos Galindo has done away with the practice, by announcing that the organism he represents “has already designed a pilot plan for e-voting that will be implemented”.

His statements took the country by surprise. Although the Electoral Mission is still active, and it delivered a series of proposal regarding voting modernization last April, the use of electoral technology is still subordinated to the 2004 Act which governs voting automation. The document presented by the Mission does not allude to changes in technology, only to aspects related to the organization and funding of electoral events.

Galindo stated that the pilot has not been carried out due to lack of funds, but gave no details as to the model devised to test e-voting in Colombia.

The last time the country had a conversation about testing electoral technology was in 2013, when the Associate Commission proposed to automate voting in 93 circuits, so a sizable number of voters could experience both the models being proposed back then: optical scanners, based on a ballot with a scanner that identifies and processes ballots for an automatic count; and Direct Electronic Register (DRE), touch-screen enabled machines where the voter makes their choices, which the machine stores, counts and transmits to a tallying centre.  These devices also have the capability of printing voting vouchers that reflect the options chosen by the user.

Galindo’s statements set off alarms: it is not known whether the pilot designed meets the characteristics agreed upon in 2013, or if this is a new test, whose reach and conditions are only known to the authorities.

It is understood that any analysis, pilot test or implementation of electoral technology requires a broad consultation. and informing political actors and the general population. This because transparency in the adoption of the automated model chosen is just as vital as its compliance with the nation’s requirements.  Colombia must advance in electoral matters, but the Civil Registry Office must show their hand, unreservedly, if they are to be credible.

Colombia restarts electorate debate in the aftermath of the Peace Agreement

Foto: La Opinión

The peace that Colombia seems to be reaching demands not only a nationwide commitment, but also deep institutional changes that include the voting system.

In order to execute such a task, the Government has taken its first steps by installing the Special Electoral Mission, conceived to generate advice and turn the ship around on the old and questioned Colombian voting model.

President Juan Manuel Santos formalized the start of operations for the team, as part of fulfilling point number two of the peace agreement signed last November between the Government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC).

This section refers to the “expansion” of democracy by means of “a greater transparency of the electoral system, which requires a series of immediate measures, especially in the regions where risks and threats persist, as well as an integral revision of the electoral regime, and of the make up and functions of the electoral authorities”.

The Colombian leader stated that this Mission will have three months, expiring in April, to craft “recommendations about the necessary adjustments of the norms and institutions to guarantee greater autonomy and independence of the electoral organization, as well as modernizing and increasing the transparency of the electoral system”.

Given the discredit the current voting model (manual voting with a pre-count) has in the nation, the parts delegated to external and independent entities the design of what could be the future Colombian electoral system, as well as recovering the credibility of the electoral organisms.

Specifically, six out of the seven members of the Mission were selected by the Carter Center, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy and the political science departments of the National and Los Andes universities in Colombia; the last spot was granted to the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), a local NGO.

With this measure, the country breaks the silence it had kept since 2015 on the modernization of its voting system. Until that date, there had been intermittent work with an advisory commission for the implementation of technology; there was even an international convocation that was attended by 16 companies, meant to carry a pilot test for automated voting.

Despite these efforts, the Colombian initiative to reform voting has been stalled in several occasions.  We hope this new momentum the country has found ends in the enforcement of the Law, which states that voting automation is mandatory, and with a system that has risked the will of the people far too many times being left behind.

Colombian registry offers quick results

The October 2 plebiscite in Colombia was not only a surprise because of the result against the peace accord between the Government and the Farc, but also due to the speed with which the Colombian National Civil Registry delivered partial results.

According to words of the Manager himself, Juan Carlos Galindo Vácha, 55 minutes after the polls closed, bulletin 11 was issued with 97.88% of the votes tallied.

This being said, and in the hopes of generating a constructive debate that leads to better elections in the region, it is important to clear some points of the Colombian electoral system that affect how results are broadcast.

Plebiscite – Yes vs No. The referendum that took place in Colombia was the simplest kind of election there is.  Voters marked one of two available options on a ballot: Yes or No. Counting the votes in such events presents no major problems.  However, in more complex elections, manual vote counts start showing their limits.

Its enough to remember what happened during the March 2010 legislative elections, when it took several days to find out who had won the seats, and months for them to be formally assigned.   The same has happened in regional and municipal elections.

Closing the polls at a fixed time.  Differently from other countries where the voting is extended as long as there are voters in line, in Colombia polls close at 4 pm.  Additionally, while some nations have to wait until all polls close, Colombia can start publishing partial results online just a few hours into the voting.

Official results vs pre-count

The announcements made on election night correspond to a non-official count.  This pre-count is informative in nature, and has no validity against the official tally that is published weeks later.

As the Registry Office website  warns: Agreement Nr 019 of the year 1994 of the CNE (National Electoral Council): “… bulletins made public by the Registry Office have a mere informative quality and shall never be considered as electoral documents that define an election…”

Online results

The Registry Office’s website showed the pre-count in real time, as partial results were being received by the authorities.

This broadcast of results definitively adds transparency to the process.  In other countries in the region, such as Venezuela, the authorities share results with political figures so they can compare them to their estimates before they are made public.  This significantly delays their broadcast, diminishing their credibility and giving politicians an undeserved sense of prominence.

Although the celerity of these results may lead some to be in favour of manual counts, something important is worth noting: In spite of the simplicity of this election, the number of null votes (170,946) and blank ballots (86,243) is almost five times larger than the difference between the Yes and the No options (53,994). There is no reasons to think there was any misconduct by the electoral workers who processed the votes; however, they should not have the authority to decide an election.  The precision of results is one of the best arguments by those who promote technology to register votes.